GOSHEN — The pilot of a plane who died in a crash near Goshen Thursday was an auto dealership owner in Middlebury, a community booster and an aviator with a history of volunteering his aircraft to fly sick children to hospitals.
Neal Myers, 55, was killed when his plane struck a high-tension power line and went down in a field about 500 yards west of C.R. 33, between C.R. 42 and C.R. 40, east of Goshen Municipal Airport around 8:10 p.m. Thursday, Elkhart County Sheriff Jeff Siegel said.
Word of Myers’ death shook residents in Middlebury who remembered the owner and president of Max Myers Motors as open, warm and friendly.
“He was such a part of the community, a friend, a good guy. Everybody’s really going to miss him in town,” Gary O’Dell, president of the Middlebury Town Council, said Friday. “You just don’t think something like this can happen.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation into the cause and circumstances of the crash. Federal and local authorities were at the scene Friday inspecting the plane wreckage as part of the case’s early stages.
“The pilot of a Piper PA-32 doing practice approaches to Goshen Airport crashed about one mile from the airport. The plane was destroyed by fire,” said Tony Molinaro, a spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The 1998-model aircraft was a low-wing single-engine plane with seven seats, according to its registration on the FAA’s website.
Brian Yoder of Millersburg said he witnessed the crash after picking his daughter up from Fairfield High School. He was driving on C.R. 42 when he said he saw the plane come down and kind of line up with the road, and then it turned before seeming to plummet and explode.
“All of a sudden it took like a nose dive,” Yoder described, estimating he was about a quarter-mile away. “It was kind of freaky because I didn’t know for sure if it was something else. And then I’d seen the fireball.”
Yoder said he also saw sparks from what he later learned was the downed power lines from a large high-tension tower. The lines were part of an Indiana-Michigan Power system running from South Bend to Fort Wayne, said James Garber, owner of the 80-acre field where the crash occurred.
Crews from Indiana-Michigan Power were in the field Friday, apparently performing repair work.
Middlebury Town Manager Mary Cripe called Friday “a sad day here in Middlebury,” as she and others grieved the loss of Myers.
Cripe knew Myers as an acquaintance, and she remembered him as outgoing and generous.
“He always had time to stop to say, ‘Hi, how are you doing? How’s your family?’” she said.
Joe Caffee, president and CEO of First State Bank in Middlebury, believed Myers easily ranked as a pillar of the town. The two became friends as Myers served on the bank’s board — a role he held since 2002 — while running his auto dealership.
“The bank lobby and all of downtown is a pretty somber place today as people pause to remember Neal and the impact he had on our community,” Caffee said, recalling how Myers took time to get to know bank employees and customers.
Myers was also an avid pilot who volunteered his time and skills to transport children with illnesses to hospitals, Caffee pointed out.
“He used his talents flying for the greater good,” he said.
Myers earned an “Angel” designation during the Goshen News’ annual “Angels Among Us” awards ceremony in 2015. He was nominated for his work serving Angel Flight Central.
A feature story, published in the “Angels” edition of Elkhart County Living magazine that year, profiled Myers’ work with the organization.
He started flying for Angel Flight in January 2014 as a pilot with 30 years of experience, the story shows. The work included volunteering for missions that include flying patients to hospitals to receive specialized care. Many of Myers’ passengers were children with illnesses or diseases, the article described.
“I want all kids to lead a good, productive life, and sometimes that’s tough. I’m just a small cog in the wheel,” Myers said in the article.
Images of Myers’ plane show it bearing the black and gold colors, as well as the famous “P” logo, of Purdue University. He and Caffee both graduated from the school in different class years and shared a love for Boilermaker sports.
“We often texted back and forth during and after basketball and football games,” Caffee recalled.
Verda Yoder of Middlebury also remembered Myers as open and friendly. She knew him through her friendship with his wife, she said.
“He was a very sweet man,” Yoder said, speaking from the Village Inn on Middlebury’s Main Street. “Walked a lot. Said ‘hi’ to you … I don’t think he knew any strangers.”
Information about viewing and funeral services for Myers had not been provided as of Friday evening.